Thursday, March 18, 2021

Shoot Straight And Speak the Truth

 It’s been a year since the pandemic forced most of us to seriously look into different ways of doing things, training included. The silver lining, however, is that it also made numerous instructors around the world see the possibilities of using technology to reach potential students in remote places, thus creating great opportunity for both instructors and students.

I didn’t think twice about jumping on such opportunity to join the 4-week course conducted by Celestino “Tinni” Macachor, the founder of the Filipino stick fighting system called Estokada De Campo. I first became aware of him back in 2007 when he co-authored the book titles Cebuano Eskrima: Beyond the Myth, which caused considerable turmoil with the FMA community for its factual approach to dispelling many of the myths and tall tales that were being perpetuated almost as sacred texts over decades.

I am not going to review the book here (although, if you are an adept of arnis or eskrima, this should be on your list of mandatory literature), but his writing style appealed to me, and it is also reflected in his conversational style – open, honest, and straightforward to the point of bluntness; great sense of humor and a healthy dose of humility…the exact right recipe to my liking.

Interestingly enough, mang Tinni’s original martial discipline was (and still is) practical pistol-craft of the IPSC orientation, but he took eskrima in the late 1980’s, studying in the Eskrima De Campo school under revered professor Ireneo Olavides, the heir to legendary grandmaster Jose Caballero, and currently the head of his own organization EDC JDC-IO. Although having been in the council of elders within that organization, mang Tinni (the way he prefers to be addressed) decided to step away so that the dislike and venomous comments that he attracted following the publishing of the aforementioned book wouldn’t affect the circle of brethren in JDC-IO.

Instead, he went into recluse for a decade, teaching only selected private students, and then in 2018 launched  his own interpretation of combative stick training methodology, which he named Estokada De Campo (EDC for short).


Macachor’s training and teaching philosophy based on the functional athletic approach, meant to develop skills that work under the pressure of sparring against resisting opponents. If you are acquainted with my earlier blog materials, it won’t come as a surprise that I like it.

For the purposes of the online course (with limited attendance of 10 students from Europe, USA and the Philippines) mang Tinni put together a streamlined curriculum, very well thought out – in a logical, sequential manner, so that each block of instruction leads students smoothly to the next. This provides for the better understanding and faster assimilation of the material, i.e. its functional application.


Mang Tinni in action

Specifically, the first week covered the fundamentals of mechanical efficiency regarding the grip on the stick and execution of basic strikes, which were then put together into several combos (called BOSS – basic offensive strike series) done from the closed and open guard positions; the second block of instruction was dedicated to a different tactical application of striking angles (cirkulo); the third segment focused on one of the hallmarks of the system – kadlit; while the final session presented further methods of doble golpes and Caballero enganyo.

The format of instruction was such that man Tinni taught during weekly Zoom sessions, and over the following week the participants would film themselves performing the material, to be analyzed and corrected within a private discussion group on Facebook. I liked this setting for several reasons: it gave enough time to the instructor to really explain and demonstrate in detail the material planned for the given lesson, as well as to answer any potential questions in real time, while he was able to subsequently pay close attention to each individual student for coaching tips and correction. Also, it means all the participants were able to learn from each other’s examples, as it would be the case in a live setting.


Photo: courtesy of Celestino Macachor

The instructional sessions were conducted with attention to detail and ample examples and parallels with other  types of activities, in order to better depict the desired effect. In line with his honest nature, mang Tinni never missed the chance to give credit where it is due, i.e. mentioning the people who taught him what he knew or had contributed to his understanding of the art. On top of that, since none of the students in this particular batch were beginners, he also repeatedly praised our previous instructors for having instilled certain good habits and attitude. As a side note, it was fairly impressive to see a gentleman of his age perform the way he did.

Finally, the mark of a true teacher, Macachor repeatedly noted that the point of training is not to mimic his exact way of movement, but rather to make the material your own by refining it through training and testing, so that it would be effective for the end user. This focus on prioritizing individual students over general curriculum is what will lead to favorable outcome.

In the case of EDC, after this module of instruction, in mang Tinni’s words: “It will not make you unbeatable, but you will be able to competently hold your own in a stick fight”. And let me tell you - you can take his word for it!

On a side note, I would like to extend my gratitude to Mr. Steve Del Castillo of the Bunal Brand, who ably provided the logistics for the whole program, and whom you may contact to join the next batch of students, starting on April 9.


Sunday, February 28, 2021

Go with the...flow!

 Asked what are the characteristics of a high-level martial art exponent, several typical responses come to mind - ease of movement, grace of execution, thinking ahead of the opponent etc. - but when they are all integrated it would be fair to say that when they are at their top game, such expert practitioners all seem to possess and exhibit flow in performance. However, this very notion may prove to be rather tricky in its meaning. Also, there is no consensus regarding if it is possible to be trained. 

Interestingly enough, some martial systems emphasize flow as their prime goal and desired result of training but may have very different ways in seeking to achieve it. Let's take the example of grappling arts such as aikido and BJJ: the former strives to develop flow as a component of its technical base and seeks to train it through relaxed and soft execution of specific techniques through high repetitions; the latter perceives flow as the result of having all other technical components in order, and tends to come at it through sparring, i.e. free rolling. 

If you have had the opportunity to try or at least see both approaches in action, you may have noticed that their understanding of what, or better yet - how, flow is is not exactly the same. In aikido it is seen as good if the whole sequence of moves and techniques runs seamlessly as one long, uninterrupted statement, even speech. But, when reading a well written article/book, or listening to an engaging speaker, you have certainly noticed full stops at the end of sentences and heard pauses at varying times in the speech. In a conversation, this is even more obvious. This is why BJJ sparring seems more natural, with its transitions, isolations, positional escapes and finally submissions - this is how a natural conversation may be represented visually. 

But, what with the striking arts? Obviously, there is high value placed on the flow in those as well, but again, the approaches frequently differ. Filipino martial arts are known for professing their preference for the flow as a supremely important aspect, but quite often it is attempted in practice in a manner similar to aikido...artificially, devoid of context, via so-called flow drills. Here is an example...


What technical attributes do you see being drilled properly here? Stance, biomechanical structure, distance, footwork..? Not exactly the most brilliant display. That said, the drill itself isn't necessarily faulty, be it sumbrada, hubad or whatever. With proper energy and intent, all those other things would fall into place. As an example, seek instruction from Roger Agbulos, either seminar or classes, to see how hubad, when well done, tend to resemble wrestling's pummeling drills. 

Over the years of my training with Alex Kostic, we came at a notion of "punctuated flow", as a term that may better represent a genuine state of performance in actual fights. To most of us, seeing a good boxer doing his craft would be a great visual representation. The following clip shows some of those, but I especially like the portion starting at 1:38, because it is a great parallel to giving a good speech, as mentioned earlier, with its pauses between well connected phrases and sentences. 


See what I mean? Now, some people may argue that flow is a mental state that cannot really be trained. I will readily agree that with some practitioners it is more innate and easier to attain, but it can be trained for sure. There are many factors involved in an adequate training methodology, but let me point to an important one to begin with. First, the trainees should be working on longer series of technical maneuvers and looking for fluid performance, but the thing is they should be aware of the purpose of each individual component, while facing progressive resistance and increasing demands in doing, so. Why? Well, once you know what are you doing and why, it is much easier to have proper intent behind your actions. Whoever has seen a Thai boxing fight knows that most exchanges are short and crisp, done explosively, and yet, in most schools you will find many strings of long combos, such as this one:


The point there is that the person practicing the drill knows the purpose and function of their individual techniques and their possible combinations, which enables practitioners to take them apart and reassemble them in different ways, according to the context and circumstances of the fight. Like learning foreign languages - you may and should learn entire phrases and expressions, but also need to know meaning of individual words and rules of linking them when expressing new meaning. Here, meaning is intent...without you can throw together any words you like in any order you want, but they might end up sounding like gibberish. 

And we all like being well understood, right?

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Choosing chances

 Probably one of the most common points of contention among martial artists and fight game practitioners (and even more so among the many couch experts and keyboard warriors) is the old saying "that will never work in a real fight". Quite often, such comments essentially stem from good intentions, but the subsequent debate may spiral out of control. The issue here is the lack of actual criteria in defining what it means for a technique/maneuver to work, what is a real fight, or even what does never truly mean.

For the purpose of this article, let's describe the real fight as an encounter where the participants fully strive to hinder or prevent the realization of the other side's ideas, while simultaneously imposing their own, as well as accomplishing whatever is their desired outcome. Please note that there is no mention of presence or absence of rules, number of participants, or any other circumstances that would imply the categories of sport, street, battlefield etc. 

The next notion - work - is easier, if it simply means "achieving the desired effect". So, it is not the matter of doing it as a complete set of motions, but rather of affecting the opponent in a way that reduces their chance of emerging victorious. 

Finally, the span or rigor of never is...well, flexible. Sometimes somebody will manage to pull off a technique that nobody else has done before, and a lot of commentators will then hang onto it as the ultimate proof of the said technique's effectiveness, although it may have been a fluke or never happening again. On the other hand, it could actually been a workable move from a competent exponent that simply no one has attempted to do before in earnest (think head kicks in MMA before Maurice Smith), but the naysayers will insist it was a lucky strike. 

This is where the notion of high percentage material comes in. Just like the label indicates - it is a maneuver that works more often that it doesn't. Now, there might be a whole bunch of reasons for it to succeed at one time and fail at another, but it seems to me that the main leverage point is the current readiness and level of the person on the receiving end. Let's take a look at this example:


The fact that the contestants are engaged in a full contact stick duel without head gear dictates different fight dynamics than otherwise, but the overall image of a Dog Brother event is still present. At 1:50 in the clip, the veteran fighter Eric Top Dog Knaus does the entry under the roof block that has served him countless times in over three decades of full contact fights. His choice of opportunity is excellent, too, being that his opponent is almost back against the wall, i.e. with no space to maintain the distance. However, Mr. Johnson on the other side does a brilliant job of sideways movement to evade the force of the attack, while still maintaining close enough distance to control the fight from that point and end it in his favor. 

What can we learn here? Several things... For one, the fact that something has worked consistently for you a hundred times is not a guarantee of the 101st. On the other side of the coin, even if something has failed consistently so far, but happens to be the only viable option in a given moment - go for it! Interestingly enough, there is a dualistic trend in fight training - once the high percentage offensive techniques are identified, there is a strong focus on defenses against those, which then become high percentage defensive techniques that do not deny the high percentage status to the offensive ones! This is why I highlighted the factor of the person on the other side. 

The bottom line is, your training can cover all of the bases if you put adequate priorities on its various elements, and in line with your big picture training goals. You "just" have to work on it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Starting points

 On the coattails of the previous post, regardless of whether you care about ranks or not, all good training is based on firm foundations. Now, there are various aspects of what constitutes foundational materials and principles, especially when talking about loose terms such as Filipino Martial Arts, i.e. something that sounds relatively homogenous, but isn't so in practice.

Nevertheless, with enough digging and analysis, there are elements that most practitioners would possibly agree on. Here is a fairly good example of such work:


The Basics of Filipino Mart... by Dexter James

I hope you find it worthy of your time, whether you agree on all of its points or not. After all, it can be a good initial position to compare your own views with. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Rocky road to ranking

 Over the past few months I have attended a couple of ranking exams in martial arts, performed online. Back in the 1990's, when I first became aware of various long-distance learning/training programs, done via VHS, I was wondering how much sense did it make. On the one hand, it seemed to me that the logistics were a serious challenge, but on the other - there were plenty of embarrassing tests conducted and ranks awarded in the direct, face to face situations. 

Over time, I came to the conclusion that it boils down to the seriousness of the system/organization and integrity of the instructors who do the testing. I remember deliberately postponing my black belt test in Taekwondo, so that I could take it under a Korean instructor known for strict standards. After spending almost an hour doing the required techniques, forms, breaking and sparring, the whole experience had much more meaning, especially having in mind that he actually failed three candidates out of dozen or so that day. 

Later, when I got involved with different, less formal systems, the entire notion of belts and ranks seemed redundant and needless. But is it so?

Means to an end, or goal itself?

Obviously, when a person is into training for the passion and for the joy of the activity itself, the rank is something of a side-effect, if considered at all. I liked the practice of some instructors I trained under, who would occasionally award ranks, completely announced, on unsuspecting students, based on their regular effort, performance and achievement, without extrinsic motivation. 

However, it took some time for me to understand that there are people who start in martial arts with what I would consider "laughable" aims of chasing belts, but actually grow into training and develop more of intrinsic goals, be it the level of performance, technical performance, discipline and character building, competitive success etc. 

Having children in training is particularly susceptible to this kind of approach, in the terms of valid strategy, although it is certainly not the only one proven to be available. Still, training kids also tends to be the environment where the rank can be rendered meaningless. I mean, with all due respect, what exactly is the rationale behind 6-year-old black belts?

???

Naturally, there will always be schools and instructors reputed as diploma mills, but let's not get bogged in that discussion. Instead, here are some reasons I see as relevant for conducting actual testing for rank. 

First, there are some fighting arts (iai-do, kenjutsu, many kung fu styles...) that simply do not include any kind of external pressure on the practitioners, aside from the possible tough instructor, and preparing for the test could provide that extra edge in their training. 

Next, sometimes the school or training group is affiliated with an instructor that is only able to visit periodically, and testing (usually attached to a seminar) is the only way to gain pertinent insight into someone's level, hence the rank actually serving as feedback for them to evaluate their effort thus far.

Finally, in case of rank tests that are open for public, it can be a good opportunity for the school to show and/or confirm its standards and legitimacy their trainees' work in the world where there is too much marketing and advertising, with scarcity of tangible evidence of quality. Typically, BJJ schools are a good example of how ranking and belts can be meaningful and worthy of respect. 


In the end, let's go back to the beginning. The online tests that I attended were well done - the instructors were demanding and helpful at the same time, while the candidates had taken it seriously and were well prepared to go through almost two-hour event, in order to demonstrate being worthy of the rank. Again, it boils down to the integrity of the entity presenting the ranks, and when that criterion is up to level, the quality of its representatives is almost guaranteed. 

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Reading Tactics

 In one's quest for learning more about the endless aspects of combative behavior, it is probably safe to say that in the absence of personal contact and instruction, video format is the next best thing...if done properly, of course. However, over the past 30+ years my preference for the books has remained unwavering. Why?, you may ask. Well, while video certainly does better in depicting the technicalities of HOW and WHAT IF in various fighting scenarios, the good old books (and the new electronic ones, actually) are simply superior i discussing the deeper, and more universal, levels of human violence and all its domains. This is why my reviews of the martial art related literature has been focusing on such works, and this time we have another one that easily qualifies for my Top 10 list.

If you have had any interest for knife-related material within the scope of personal protection, the name of Tom Sotis should probably at least ring a bell. Namely, he is one of the pioneers in the field of developing and teaching "knifing" as the platform for the more general fighting skill. As the founder of AMOK! he has thought hundreds of seminars around the world and tested his material where very few others dared trying. Fortunately, besides seminars and training camps, his hands-on training methods are accessible for the general public through the AMOK! website, while its underlying philosophical foundations and experiences that had lead to its establishing are brilliantly presented in the book The Way of Tactics: a Manifesto of Invincibility.


The book is divided into three parts, each covering one of the intertwined building blocks of Sotis' methodology.

The first part is comprised of a couple dozen biographical episodes, which serve, as it seems to me, a two-fold purpose: providing the reader with contextual background from which the author's teachings have grown; and highlighting specific life lessons gained from those events, since they make the fabric of his higher, meta level material. Now, the fragments of author's life may not be as extreme as with some others, but he certainly did thread a path that not may people do, and it is obvious that his authority as a teacher/instructor/coach is as authentic as it gets, and you can take his word or trust his judgment on the subjects in the book. 

The second part is what I found to be the most valuable portion, and which I keep re-reading often. Here, Sotis gives an extremely thorough and methodical presentation of the material indicated by the title on the cover. Many authors have offered their take on the importance of strategy and tactics in combat training (frequently using the two terms interchangeably), but none comes even close to this book. Unlike them, Sotis has a highly analytical approach to step-by-step exposition of the ideas he wants to convey, and manages to do it in a superbly clear and logical way. From the trainee's inner values as the ground for strategies, through tactics used for the accomplishment of what he calls (and describes in a precise fashion) the best possible outcome, the author takes the readers on the tour of dealing with possible conflicts in their pre-engagement, engagement and post-engagement phases. Along the way he provides excellent insights into the tools for assessment, protocols, preparation, managing fear, and a whole host of other precious lessons regarding mental and physical pillars in one's training. 

Although the third part of the book is titled Application, it has nothing to do with photos showing physical movements, techniques etc. Instead, this is where we see how the material from the first two parts is processed and used in planning, organizing and running a training process in the functional manner. This also where Sotis gives his views on the common pitfalls of most martial training organizations and how he manages to avoid them within his own. It is important not only from the standpoint of practicality, but also from the perspective of supporting the arguments for the structures explained earlier and purported as the backbone of effective training. 


I have to say, having followed Sotis' work to the best of my ability since his earliest appearance on the Internet in the late 1990s, my expectations of the book were VERY high, and yet, he has overcome them by a large margin. The bottom line is, if you are involved in fight training for any reason other than the ethnological study reasons or the quick money making, you cannot afford to skip this book. Yes, it is so important that if you only buy one instructional item over the next five years - make it this one! 

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Q&A...not!

 Students will have questions. Of course, that is an essential part of being a student. As the matter of fact, instructors will have questions, too! One may even argue that as long as you train, you will be looking for answers to one question or another. But, not all questions or answers are created equal! 

The point here is not in the "dumb" questions people ask every once in a while, because hey don't know any better or are too lazy to just think about it it, or try it on their own. As an instructor there are two particularly challenging situations you are probable to experience sooner or alter in your work, regarding answering your trainees' requests. 

The first is when they have a questions, but you don't have an answer. In itself, that is not unusual, we all have seen experts in various fields being in a similar position here and there. However, younger and fresh instructors are often stressed by this and tempted to come up with an ad hoc solution, to save their face. Here and there, depending on the person asking and the nature of the inquiry, such approach may work, especially if the teacher is skilled with words. It is OK, if the predicament pushes you to actually look into subject afterwards to see how to deal with the same question if it pops up again. Then again, if you are lazy or don't care about students' questions (in which case you shouldn't be an instructor) it could look like an easy way out and lead to complacency...in which case you are setting yourself for the other scenario. You get the question and try to wing it, but the answer is unsatisfactory and they let you know it. Now, this IS embarrassing, especially if you don't know how to handle it.

 My experience though, as a long time martial arts instructor and school teacher, says it is far better to be honest about it. Say you don't know the answer, but promise to have it by the next training session. Moreover, make it a challenge for everybody in the class, and then spend the portion of the next meet in offering/comparing the solutions. BUT - make sure to do your homework! Others may or may not accept the challenge and seek the answers, but you have to. It will show those training with you that you are an honest and thoughtful instructor who really cares about their needs and do everything you do in their best interest. 

The second situation is probably even more delicate, and something that grand majority of instructors, unfortunately, had to deal with somewhere along their path. There is this kind of student, usually the one who ask most questions anyway, while also being the biggest slacker when actually training. Typically, he or she will approach you with a question, maybe even a good and important one, and when you gladly answer it - it is not the answer they were hoping for. All your great arguments, brilliant reasoning, host of evidence and concrete hands-on demonstration will be futile. Such people have predetermined outcomes in their minds, and as far as they are concerned - you are wrong! By the way, this occurrence is more typical of seminars than regular classes. 

Well, what do you do then? I am afraid the answer is - it depends. You maybe dealing with an otherwise nice and pleasant person who doesn't present any harm to the atmosphere in the group or detriment to the quality of the overall training. If so, ask to hear their opinion (and reasoning, if available), kindly nod your head and say you'll give it some thought. Usually that dissolves the situation and everybody can proceed with their work. 

On the other hand, should you have on your hands a person who keeps pestering you with incessant questions and disputing everything you say or do, there is no choice but to drop them from the group. Again, depending on the context, it can be done politely or harshly. If it is a group situation at all, I would suggest that the person at hand cannot be best served in such environment and offer to give them private lessons. And if it is a private client in the first place...well, maybe the money is good enough to put up with their act, but I would probably say it is evident I wasn't the best instructor for their needs, probably just holding their progress back, and strongly suggest they look for training elsewhere. 

Oh, and if you are a student!? Please, please, please!!! Be mindful of what are you asking and why, i.e. what are you trying to gain from the answer. If looking for a sincere response from the instructor, then take it and give it at least some thought and/or practice with the advice, before asking for clarification or voicing your dissatisfaction with it, should that be the case. Sure, if you are paying for the instruction, you deserve the best effort from the instructor. He or she may or may not be what you are looking for, and that's fine, but it doesn't give you the right to harass them. They may not be aware of their shortcomings, maybe being erroneous in the best of intentions, so it would be better to present your concerns in a one-on-one conversation first. And if it just doesn't work...walk away, don't waste your time and money in a place that makes you frustrated while failing to offer anything worthwhile in return. In any case, the conflict shouldn't be about who is right, but rather about what it the right thing to do.